Thanks to Jack for keeping the site updated while I was away and also posting about my landfall.
Midday Sunday, February 23rd, after 11 days of sailing, I saw land for the first time. It’s funny, over the past day or so, thinking about approach-options to the Virgin Islands and where I make landfall and check-in with customs and immigration, I never really thought about that first sight of land. Also, where HJ and I hail from, South Florida, the land is low—beyond low—and “seeing land” when making landfall means seeing the tops of condominiums over the curvature of the earth. Interesting but not impressive.
Conversely, the first sight of land in the Caribbean is impressive. St. Thomas of the USVI rises 1,700 feet out of the ocean. As I would later find, you can be sailing a quarter-mile off the land and be in 160 feet of water. Also, I knew it was coming because over the past two nights at sea, I’ve been seeing the horizon-glow of the city lights from San Juan, Puerto Rico and Charlotte Amalie, USVI.
Shortly after noon local time on Sunday (I’ve travelled so far east that I am in the Atlantic Time Zone), I was sitting in HJ’s cockpit while she sailed herself in a south-southwesterly direction. I was taking midday sights with my sextant to determine our geographical position using the sun’s passage over our local meridian (the line connecting the north pole and south pole, and our position). One could argue this is totally unnecessary given that the GPS does this for me many times per minute. However, in my quest to earn my distance, I’ve been teaching myself celestial navigation—more on that coming in a different post.
As you see in the image above, the sextant has a small telescope on it. I’d say it’s about 6 or 8 power, about the same as a weak set of binoculars. When you look through the sextant’s telescope, you see both horizon and the sun superimposed; the way the sextant works, the sun actually appears in front of the horizon. To take the sight, you adjust the sextant until the sun’s image appears to sit on the horizon. Then you note the height of the sun from the sextant’s arc and the exact GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) and do lots of manual calculations. Again, more on this in another post. As I was taking the sight, I saw what looked like a mountain on the horizon. I thought, “What the heck… am I seeing things again?” (wouldn’t be the first time after 11 days) Then I blinked and it was still there. It then hit me that I should be seeing land soon as we were 23 nautical miles out at that point. Crazy because if South Florida weren’t built up, you’d probably be 5-7 miles out before you saw land, it’s that low.
To celebrate, I made myself a glass of limeade and toasted (reamed one lime into a glass, added two teaspoons of sugar and water). Quick aside, British sailors are nicknamed “Limeys” because when it was discovered that lime juice both cured and prevented scurvy (because of the vitamin C), the queen’s sailors were rationed one lime per day when on passage.
The rest of the day, we were sailing hard on the wind (sailing into the wind). Not a sailboat’s fastest point of sail—especially a blue-water cruiser like Hazel. Therefore, it was another 4 hours of sailing before we were really close to the islands. It was fun and exciting to see the sea life and birds change and appear as we approached land. I saw a mixed group of Frigate Birds and Brown Boobies going after a school of baitfish that were being pushed to the surface by larger fish below.
I learned from studying my charts that not far north of the coast of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands lies the Puerto Rico Trench. This oceanic trench is the deepest in the Atlantic and helps define the boundary between the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea. It’s dizzying to think that you’re sailing over water that is 27,500 feet deep. I know you can just as easily drown in your bathtub but still…. Later, I did some quick internet searches and estimate that if I had dropped a penny in the water over the trench, it would have taken 2 hours and 40 minutes for it to reach the bottom.
As I said, it took me another 4 or so hours of sailing to be in close proximity of the Virgin Islands. Unfortunately this put us at sunset. There’s no way you should be trying to navigate an approach to land in the dark in a area you’ve never sailed before, so I had no choice but to heave-to for the night. Heaving-to consists of putting the boat‘s sails and rudder in a configuration where they purposefully work against each other. Similar to a plane, the boat stalls and moves very little (I averaged ~1 knot for the night [1.2 MPH]). Unlike a plane though, the boat is bouyed by relatively dense saltwater; a plane’s buoyancy comes from the air around it and it will drop like a proverbial stone when it stalls. Still, as in the open-ocean, I had to maintain my schedule of 30 minute cat-naps to check my position, make sure there were no major wind-shifts while I was asleep and make adjustments. 1 knot is dead-slow far from being safely on anchor, especially when you are only a couple miles from land.
Needless to say, I greeted the light in the east around 5:30 AM and the sunrise around 6:30 AM with gratitude.
The next morning I sailed and motored to Cruz Bay, USVI on the western side of the island of St. John and cleared customs and immigration. I then had a good lunch ashore and also visited the US National Park office while HJ sat at temporary anchor (it’s a busy port-of-entry so I was in a max 3 hour anchoring zone). About 2/3rds of the island of St. John is national park and Hazel and I are excited to explore it after we get cleaned up, organized and lick a few of our wounds. Later that day, as my 3 hours expired, I found a marina with availability on the eastern side of the island of St. Thomas (also USVI). HJ and I motored the several miles to it and tied-up.
All-in-all, we covered 1,160 nautical miles during the 11-day passage (1,300 statue or “land based” miles). Here’s our overall track…
In the GPS track, you can clearly see the variations from our intended course (the waypoint red “X”s) and our actual course. The wind and currents will do what they will do, oblivious to me, my situation and my desires. Just as clearly as the GPS-track, there is a life lesson there for me and I hope for you.
I have lots of remembrances, written and audio notes, and photos of the passage. If you’ll indulge me to keep following this site, I’ll be posting them as I have time to put them together.
My son Jack graduated with a Master’s Degree in Environmental Policy and Management this past December. It was a powerful and wonderful experience for him. As he finished his last papers and finals, I asked him if he was excited about finishing. I thought his response was so interesting: he said he had mixed-feelings about finishing the program. Although he was excited to get the degree, he would also miss the program, professors, fellow-students and intellectual stimulation. I feel that way about finishing this passage—mixed-feelings but all of them good.
I’m writing this from HJ’s rather messy saloon, a lot happens on passage and on making landfall that you put-off and don’t worry about until later.
Last night I slept like the dead for 10-straight hours. For 12 nights I had been working on a roughly 30-minute catnap cycle. When I finally came-to this morning, I blinked and thought, “Did that all really happen? Was it just a dream?” I poked my head out of Hazel James’ companionway and found that I really was here.
Thanks as always for reading and I so-appreciate your comments back.